Theater vets crowd out Hollywood stars at Tonys
By MARK KENNEDY, AP Drama Writer
Updated 6:27 am, Thursday, June 6, 2013
NEW YORK (AP) — The day after the Tony Award nominations were announced, Annaleigh Ashford stood smiling in a Times Square hotel’s event space, cheered by the sight of all her fellow honorees gathered together.
Wandering nearby were Stephanie J. Block and Patina Miller, Laura Osnes and Danny Burstein, Condola Rashad and Will Chase. Off in the distance were Victoria Clark, Amy Morton, Kristine Nielsen, Tracy Letts and Valisia LeKae.
Ashford, dressed in a velvet romper and enjoying her first Tony nod for “Kinky Boots” after years of solid stage work, summed it up this way: “It surely is incredible to see all these theater people in the room.”
Plenty of A-list Hollywood stars showed up on Broadway this season — and many helped their shows turn a profit — but Sunday’s Tony Awards will mostly be celebrating the actors few know outside Times Square.
There were no nominations for Bette Midler, Jessica Chastain, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Paul Rudd, Alec Baldwin, Alicia Silverstone, Sigourney Weaver, Cuba Gooding Jr. or Scarlett Johansson. The only truly starry name to pick up a nod was Broadway newcomer Tom Hanks.
“By and large, it’s theater people who have been honored this season and it’s great. It doesn’t always happen that way,” says Billy Porter, nominated for the first time for “Kinky Boots” after being in five Broadway shows.
The 24 members of the Tony Award nominating committee — composed of theater professionals who each serve three-year terms — are not permitted to discuss the selection process, leaving it a mystery why, for instance, Midler didn’t make the list of best actresses in a play.
“There are only five slots and I think that they know that Bette Midler can live without being nominated and still go home and sleep OK,” joked Richard Kind, a nominee for best featured actor in a play for “The Big Knife.”
The big names to recently grace the Great White Way join a pipeline that has included Chris Rock, Daniel Radcliffe, Robin Williams, Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.
They’re either looking to kick-start their careers, return to their early roots or try something new. The results have been mixed, but the lure seems to grow every year. On tap for next season: Billy Crystal, Hugh Jackman, Mary-Louise Parker, Orlando Bloom, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz.
Mike Isaacson, who has produced shows like “Bring It On: The Musical” with no stars but has also hired celebrities like Brian Dennehy for a revival of “Death of a Salesman,” says there’s no formula.
“You look at your show and what you think it needs to make it the most successful,” he says. “If you get the right talent on the stage, the audience comes.”
There are no-brainers — Pacino, Hanks and Johansson sell tickets. Some are judgment calls — will people come out to see Alec Baldwin or Nathan Lane when they can see them for free on TV?
Sometimes how the star is billed becomes crucial, says producer John N. Hart Jr. His Tony-winning “Once” opened with actors largely unknown outside Times Square, but he also generated plenty of buzz when Katie Holmes appeared in the short-lived play “Dead Accounts” this season.
“I thought with Katie Holmes, the curiosity factor would catapult her but mistakenly we sold her as the star and she wasn’t the star of the show and people came out saying, ‘Oh, I was disappointed,’” he says. “I think she did a great job, but since we said she was a star they were looking ‘Was this a star performance?’ and they decided it wasn’t.”
Hart is currently working on moving a new production of “The Glass Menagerie” starring Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones to New York for a 17-week run starting this September.
He anticipates that audiences will be intrigued by Quinto, who plays Spock in the “Star Trek” reboots, but that they’ll really plunk down their money to see Jones, the two-time Tony winner for “Doubt” and “The Heiress.”
“She’s a Broadway star,” he says.
Until fairly recently, big celebrities on Broadway weren’t in it for the money. They got perhaps $25,000 a week — nothing to sneeze at but hardly a movie paycheck. That’s been changing, with Pacino reportedly earning $125,000 a week for the latest revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which earned no Tony nominations.
Such big paychecks are pricing out Broadway’s nonprofit theaters such as the Roundabout Theatre Company, the Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center Theater. The top scale at the Roundabout is less than $1,300 a week.
“I think it is harder for us to attract the big stars now because we’re competing directly with commercial theater which is doing a lot more plays with big stars and paying them a fortune,” says Todd Haimes, the Roundabout’s artistic director. “It makes it a little bit harder for us because we’re competing with these huge salaries.”
The Roundabout recently scored a coup by getting Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” to star in its revival of “Harvey,” a commercial and critical hit. “Those kind of big stars are few and far between,” Haimes says.
But for all the flash, it’s worth noting that this past season’s top biggest money earners had something in common: There were no big stars in “Wicked,” ”The Lion King,” ”The Book of Mormon,” ”Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” ”The Phantom of the Opera” and “Jersey Boys.”
Five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald can see the appeal of stars showing up on Broadway. They attract attention and that translates into jobs for wig makers, ticket-takers and costume makers. But they also take work from worthy theater veterans.
“Look, Broadway needs exposure and without an audience, there is no Broadway. I think they absolutely serve a purpose. It puts butts in seats that might not necessarily be there,” she says.
“With the economy the way it is, producers are scared to do shows unless they’ve got a name in it. So what do you do? Do you not do the show?” she adds. “It’s a frustrating thing. I see the Catch-22.”